Thursday, March 31, 2011

Phoebe Arrives

A phoebe arrived in our yard today -- the first of the year. The phoebe landed ahead of the approaching April Fool's Day Nor'easter. Say it ain't so. I just raked the gardens, uncovering chives and tulips and other perennials.

 Chives - a touch of new green growth in the garden

Each day we watch the patches of snow shrink in size in our front yard. Just a wee bit of snow remains on the front lawn, although bigger piles persist in the colder and more shaded back and side yards. This all changes tomorrow with an unpredictable amount of new snow on the way. The good news is that temperatures will climb into the high 40s this weekend, so whatever tomorrow brings, it won't last.

The phoebe and I will be glad to see the snow melt away. Time for gardening not snowshoeing.

Tulips unfurling

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Great Blues are Back

Kodi and I returned to the Sweet Trail today, the third time in five days. Today was the kind of Spring day we've been waiting for: the temperature rising into the 50s, full sun and blue sky, a gentle breeze. A day to be outside, raking the yard, listening to birds singing, and walking on the Sweet Trail. Kodi likes this trail; he finds little treasures to gnaw on there (no more details to be forthcoming). I like the solitude and the meandering nature of the wooded trail as it passes by large beaver-maintained wetlands and small, woodland (vernal) pools.

A few days ago the wetlands were just thawing around the edges. Today, open water covered more of the wetlands. Some vernal pools were completely free of ice, although they remained silent - the wood frogs had not yet migrated from the uplands to the pools to breed.

But other animals were active in the wetlands. A dozen pairs of hooded mergansers cruised around the bigger wetlands among the stumps and hummocks and fallen and standing dead trees. A nearly equal number of wood ducks were also cruising about, although there seemed to be many more males than females. A few pairs of mallards, black ducks, and Canada geese rounded out the list of waterfowl.

On Sunday, the biggest wetland was still mostly frozen and the great blue heron nests (the rookery) stood empty. As I approached the wetland today I did not expect to see anything in the nest, but when I looked up, two herons stood like statues in their respective stick nests - absorbing the sun's warmth and surveying the wetland below.

 The wetland on Sunday, March 27th

The wetland today, March 30th - more open water and herons!

The heron sits atop a nest today

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Back to the Farm

The greenhouse was warm, that is really all that mattered. A cold March wind rattled the plastic that forms the sides of the small planting greenhouse at New Roots Farm. We sat inside on overturned buckets and camp chairs soaking up the passive solar heat.
Today -- as I've been doing now for four years beginning in early Spring -- I began helping Farmer Renee start vegetable seeds. The growing season -- extended by greenhouses -- is underway at last. It felt wonderful to gather up the potting soil in my bare hands, fill the potting trays, water them deeply, then drop individual seeds into each tiny cell. I planted eggplants (Galine, Black Beauty, and Dancer) and bell peppers (Revolution and Lady Bell) and day-dreamed of mid-summer harvests.

Galine eggplant seeds - one to a cell -- ready to be covered with finely sifted soil,
watered deeply, and left in the warm greenhouse to germinate.

Mike -- a new apprentice this year -- helped Jeff finish the roof on the CSA shed, where members will come to collect their shares once a month. He then joined us in the greenhouse to help with the eggplant seeds. While we worked, we listened to the animals in the barnyard just outside the greenhouse door. The big pigs needled the smaller ones, causing an occasional pig squeal. While the big pigs banged the food trough, the small pigs snuggled in the sun.

The cow bellowed and the lambs cried for more milk, while soaking up the sun. Everyone wanted to be out of the wind and in a warm place. March has been relentlessly cold.

After an afternoon in the greenhouse we stepped outside and were immediately swept up by the wind and colder air. We wandered down to the hoop houses where Renee showed us a patch of overwintering Swiss chard that had sprouted some new leaves. They were as fresh and tasty as tender spinach. Mike ate his on the spot; I brought some home for dinner. A great blue heron lifted off from the still partially frozen farm pond -- it returned five days ago from southern climes. The garlic is slow but it is peeking through the black plastic.

A garlic shoot pushes toward the sun

Some people fly to Florida in March, while I prefer to head to the nearest greenhouse. The sun is just as intense, but without the crowds.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Nuclear Option Not Needed

Up until the earthquake and tsunami caused a breakdown of the nuclear power plant in northeast Japan, support for nuclear power was on the rise. Even some environmentalists had come around to the nuclear option, given its presumed cleaner technology compared to coal and oil. The ongoing (seemingly serious) troubles at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant is causing a slow reversal of some of that support.

Just in recent days changes are afoot. On Sunday, the German Green Party defeated Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats in a southwestern German state - a major upset resulting from growing opposition to nuclear power in Germany. Before the vote, Merkel had temporarily shut down seven of the country's 17 nuclear power plants following the Japan earthquake, but that was not enough for the voters, since she is a big supporter of nuclear power.

In the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently approved a 20-year extension for Vermont Yankee. However, the State Legislature and the Governor want it closed.

These citizen-inspired happenings are centered on the potential (and in some cases real) threats to the environment and to human health. Others will argue that many more people die from oil and coal extraction and processing and that the risk from nuclear energy is comparatively low.

I think it is the unpredictability of nuclear shutdowns and accidents and the still uncertain methods for disposal of nuclear waste that cause the most concern. Living on Earth, a weekly environmental news program distributed by Public Radio International and broadcast on NPR, discussed nuclear power this week. Host Bruce Gellerman spoke with Amory Lovins, co-founder, chairman, and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. This segment titled, True Cost Accounting for Nuclear Power." is worth a listen (or you can read the transcript).

Gellerman's first question to Amory Lovins: "So, is it possible that we can meet our carbon reduction targets without nuclear power?" His answer: "Of course! Not only that, but we could do so more effectively and more cheaply..." One of Lovins' main points is that nuclear power is extremely costly because of the risks. No private investors will invest money, only the government...... The interview with Amory Lovins is short, but you can read more about his thinking at the Rocky Mountain Institute website, or read his recent blog post, Learning from Japan's Nuclear Disaster.

I'm with Amory Lovins on this one.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

One Year

One year ago this weekend we brought Zane home from the local shelter. He had a non-contagious mange and we were to foster him for a week and also consider during that time whether we'd keep him forever. He settled in to our home, Aria our German Shepherd seemed to like him, and before the week was over we decided to adopt Kodi - the new name that we chose for him.

He was devilish in the early days, after all he was only one and had spent much of his first year in shelters. While fostering him the first week he was quiet and calm in the house. Not two days after his adoption he started marking in the house and was biting and pouncing on me. I wondered whether we'd made the right decision.

 Kodi, a swirling bundle of energy, one year ago

 Kodi, at one year, looking like a devil

It took time, as it does with all dogs, but he calmed down a bit and stopped marking. Our journey together over the past year has taken us to the top of many 4,000-foot mountains, to the beach on clear, winter days, and on many trails and woods in between. Kodi is terrific, even though he got kicked out of doggie day care last fall. He just loves to play and is more exuberant than most other dogs. His herding genes kick in when he sees other dogs, so his initial response is to run toward a dog, sweep around like he's gathering a flock of sheep, and then move in for a nip on the rump if the other dog does not respond. After the initial surprise, most dogs are happy to play with Kodi.

Kodi in December, looking a  lot calmer

This weekend we celebrated his second birthday and his one year anniversary with us. Saturday morning we went to the beach on the outgoing tide. He met several dogs, including a 6-year old basset hound that was having a birthday party on the beach later that day. 

In the afternoon we walked a portion of the Sweet Trail between Newmarket and Durham and returned again this afternoon. The 4-mile trail meanders through a unique area of rocky outcrops, wetlands, and upland forests of oak and hickory and hemlock and pine. March has been cold -- this weekend was no exception -- so the wetlands and woodland (vernal) pools are still mostly frozen; only the edges are beginning to melt. Wood frogs and salamanders have yet to make their way to their breeding pools. The great blue heron nests in the beaver wetlands are still silent.

March is the month for waterfowl (ducks and geese) migration. In the small patches of open water we saw pairs of mallards, Canada geese, and black ducks. Some of these pairs will stay here and nest in these wetlands, others will continue north to breed. A small flock of ring-necked ducks floated in the open water around a beaver lodge. Six wood ducks lifted off from another wetland, the females emitting a loud, distinct squeal, wee-e-e-e-k, as they flew off through the trees. No other duck has such a call.

Happy Birthday Kodi. We're so glad we found you in the shelter one year ago.

Kodi on the Sweet Trail today - his approximate birthday

Friday, March 25, 2011

More Tick News

Every year in late-March, the University of New Hampshire hosts a greenhouse open house. The timing is perfect. Our gardens are just emerging from snow cover, a few sprouts are popping up, and we all feel a little cabin fever after a long winter. Visiting a warm, humid greenhouse to see beautiful flowers, herbs, and perennials is just the ticket.

The greenhouse is a tease. The horticultural club sells annuals and perennials for prices that are hard to resist. Who can pass up a pot of yellow miniature daffodils? Not me and most everyone else that I saw!

The greenhouse full of perennials was equally irresistible. Suitable outdoor planting conditions are at least a month away and yet visitors scooped up plants like it was early May. I also succumbed to the warmth and the beauty. Armeria formosa, or pinkball thrift, caught my eye. I left with three of these pink-flowered plants. This plant grows best in well-drained soil in full sun; my yard exactly.

In addition to opening the greenhouses to plant sales and walk-through, the open house offers educational programs and displays full of information. I ran into several former colleagues there, including Dr. Alan Eaton, an expert on ticks. Alan also studies blueberry maggot and other fruit pests. I always have interesting conversations with Alan, including last year when I learned that I had eaten blueberry maggots along with my fresh-picked blueberries from a local farm. Oh well.

Back to ticks though. Since I'd just found ticks on Kodi last week and one on myself a few days ago, it was good to talk with him again about ticks. Alan has several precautionary recommendations when going outside -- especially in June when nymphs are active and are too tiny to see on your body.  He has a great publication on ticks available for download called: Biology and Management of Ticks in New Hampshire. He also has a very helpful publication on the types and effectiveness of Insect Repellents.

Alan's recommendations to avoid tick encounters and lessen the chance of getting Lyme disease include:
  • Check yourself daily (clothing, body, and head); make it routine, like brushing your teeth
  • If walking in high tick areas wear pants tucked into socks and a long-sleeved shirt; light-colored clothing allows you to easily see and brush off ticks
  • Wear full shoes (not sandals) when walking through brushy areas or tall grass
  • Spraying clothing with tick repellent can help; minimize or avoid application on skin
  • If an embedded tick is found, carefully remove it with tweezers; monitor your health - if flu symptoms arise consult your physician
I also carry a roll of masking tape with me on my walkabouts during tick season. This is a handy tool for picking off ticks from clothing. I seal the tick inside the tape and dispose of it once I am back home. This works well on dogs too if they suddenly run through a high tick area and you see ticks crawling on their fur. Ticks stick easily to the tape.

Enough on ticks. I'm signing off now to go smell my miniature daffodils. The smell of spring is in the air, at least a tiny bit inside, on this day in late March - still somewhere between winter and spring.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A View from my Window

It was about 2:15 this afternoon and I was on a conference call. The call was going slowly and I was only peripherally involved in the conversation. So my focus and gaze shifted to looking out my home office window toward the bird feeders and the patch of open woods beyond. I saw some movement near a small pile of brush. It was snowing, so the light was dim. I put the phone on speaker so I could better hold my binoculars.

And there, I could not believe it, was a woodcock probing in the soft, moist soil for earthworms and other insects. In the mid-afternoon in rather open woodlands with little cover, a woodcock was in my patch of woods. She should have been napping in a thick cover of alder. I say she, because females are bigger than males and this bird was large and plump.

Needless to say, my attention drifted away from the conference call to watching the woodcock. The call lasted over an hour. During that time the woodcock rested a few times, tucking its bill into its back, but otherwise she moved slowly about, probing among the leaf litter and into the new dusting of snow to the soft soil beneath.

The fantastic part was the bird's movement. It bobbed back and forth (sort of a rocking motion) on its short legs as it pressed one pinkish-colored foot forward and then another. Like it was pressing down on the leaf litter. I've read that this is to cause earthworms to move and thereby more easily detected. After a few steps it stuck its 2 1/2 inch bill deep into the soil. This woodcock actively bobbed and pressed its feet. I watched it pull up a long juicy earthworm and nearly every probe seem to be successful in finding some insect or other food item.

The conference call ended and I kept watching the woodcock. Finally Kodi pulled me away for a long walk. We were out for more than an hour. Later, when I looked out the window at 5:30 pm I thought the bird had left, but after a few seconds there she was, not far from where I last saw her.

Yesterday I wrote about how few people get to see the male woodcock mating ritual because it happens at dusk or because they haven't the foggiest idea that it is even happening. They completely miss hearing the peents. But this, even I have never spent so much time watching a woodcock feed in broad daylight, Likely it was the mid-afternoon gray sky and snowfall that made the woodcock feel safer than it probably should have felt.

I set up the spotting scope (after the conference call) to better see the bird. I could see all her features -- large, black eyes set high on her head to better see predators like a hawk, black bars on the head, a plain, unstreaked, buff-colored breast and belly, big feet on short legs, and a robust body. An odd-looking bird with quaint behaviors.

Srini arrived home in time to see a few bobs and probes as it grew dark. He had to start dinner while I continued to watch the woodcock feeding. By 7:00 pm -- nearly 5 hours after I first saw her -- she was still probing in the same small patch of woods.

One more amazing view from my office window.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Top Three Songs

We set out for a walk around the block just before dawn this morning. Welcoming the official start of spring on this day - the Vernal Equinox. Just past 6:00 am the setting moon still loomed large and bright on the horizon. We needed no other light to guide our way. All was quiet, except for the early birds.

Robins, cardinals, and woodcock were all singing before first light. The woodcock took top honors with the most creative song and dance. We flushed one from a neighbor's yard. It flew in a big circle around us then landed again on the lawn at the edge of a shrub thicket. We saw the woodcock - his long bill, short legs and plumb body -- in silhouette as he fluttered past in the pre-dawn light. Because woodcock are only active at dawn and dusk, when it is nearly too dark to see them, and then spend the day quiet and well-camouflaged in alder thickets, most people never see them. Too bad - they are such a cool looking bird.

A full chorus of birds could be heard after sunrise. Brown creepers and nuthatches. Goldfinches and titmice and chickadees. A mourning dove. A warm, sunny day in spring is no time to be inside. Nature is sprouting and awakening before our eyes.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tick Time

I was remiss in not mentioning a few days ago (Thursday) that the first ticks emerged. These are the black-legged (deer) tick that can transmit Lyme disease. Kodi picked up a few when we walked through a field on a sunny afternoon.

We find ticks on Kodi's black body mostly by feel. We discovered three embedded ticks in Kodi on Thursday while giving him is after dinner body massage! On his last vet visit a month or so ago he tested positive for Lyme. However, he shows no signs of the disease, such as lameness or fatigue. Quite the opposite in fact. Most dogs around here seem to test positive. Unless they show signs we don't worry. The same goes for ourselves. We do a daily body check (when we remember) once ticks emerge. Prevention is always the best, with prompt removal of an embedded tick.

The emergence of ticks in no way changes how much time I spend my outdoors. I'm just a little more cautious in walking through high tick areas, such as tall grass, and do the regular body checks. Otherwise, no worries.

In other local news: 

We are hoping that the clouds part this afternoon in time to see the so-called "Supermoon" rise. Tonight, the full moon is coinciding with its perigee -- when the moon in its orbit is closest to the earth. This combination doesn't happen that often. The moon will be thousands of miles closer -- thus appearing larger than usual -- than its average distance from earth, although it is still 221,566 miles away.

You've heard from me that woodcock are peenting. This is a good night to get out to see the supermoon and the amazing Sky Dance of the woodcock. Moonrise is around 7:15 pm here, just when the woodcock are peenting and twittering. And the full moon encourages the woodcock to dance longer into the night.

More spring migrant birds are arriving. I saw and heard a killdeer in a nearby field. The NH Birding List posted sightings of tree swallows and broad-winged hawks. Chris Martin, from New Hampshire Audubon, reported that a peregrine falcon nesting on a building in Manchester laid her first egg of 2011. Spring is upon us.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Green Fire

"We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known every since, that there was something new to me in those eyes-- something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter's paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."

-- Thinking Like a Mountain in A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, 1949 

(Photo: Aldo Leopold at his shack in Sand County, Wisconsin, The Aldo Leopold Foundation)

Aldo Leopold lived from 1887 to 1948; he died of a heart attack while helping a neighbor fight a brush fire. Leopold was a forester, ecologist, wilderness advocate, hunter, author, father, landowner, and conservationist. The breadth of his live experiences, his curiosity about the natural world, and his influence on our thinking about forestry, wildlife management, watershed restoration, and wilderness is extraordinary.

His most influential writing is A Sand County Almanac. It is there that he wrote about the natural phenomena around his cabin in Sand County, Wisconsin - about January Thaw, Good Oak, Sky Dance, and more. The Almanac also includes "Sketches Here and There" including Thinking Like A Mountain. Something changed in Leopold -- something deeply philosophical -- on that day, when he and friends killed that old wolf. One of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wolves that he helped exterminate. He believed then that wolves were bad. The green fire in those dying eyes changed everything. As a scientist and a wilderness advocate, he began to realize that wolves were part of the community, actually essential to healthy ecosystems. Fewer wolves meant too many deer, not the reverse.

Perhaps the most profound part of A Sand County Almanac, is Leopold's vision of A Land Ethic. He wrote, "In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such." Leopold cared about human relationships and human relationships to the land.

The first ever full-length, high definition film about Leopold: Green Fire—Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time is premiering across the country. The one hour film  explores Aldo Leopold's life in the context of American conservation and environmental history, while also illustrating how Leopold's legacy lives on today in the work of people and organizations across the nation and around the world.

On the first weekend of April we are hosting a local Aldo Leopold weekend nearby in Northwood, New Hampshire to celebrate Leopold's life and influence. Our events include a Friday night potluck supper, a presentation on Leopold, and readings from A Sand County Almanac by local community members. The next morning I am leading a bird walk in search of early spring migrants and a reading of Leopold's Sky Dance. Saturday evening we are hosting the New England premiere of the documentary film, Green Fire. The full schedule can be viewed here. For more on the movie and locations for other showings visit here.

As noted in the movie, Green Fire, Leopold profoundly influenced the people and communities around him, and even now, more than 60 years after his death, he continues to be ahead of his time. We need Leopold's guiding principles of a land ethic and an ecological conscience as much today, if not more. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Peents and Twitters

Srini heard a woodcock peent on his pre-dawn walk with Kodi this morning. A sure sign that spring is peeping out all over. The woodcock is an odd-looking, short-legged "shorebird" that likes upland openings and alder swales and young forests rather than beaches and mudflats. They migrate through our area starting in March; some will remain and nest if the habitat is right.

At this point in the season the males seem to be practicing their Sky Dance, as Aldo Leopold described this annual ritual in his 1949 A Sand County Almanac. Before dawn and again after sundown, the male woodcock finds an opening -- a lawn, a meadow, or pasture, a woods road -- and starts to strut on his short legs. While walking about he makes a series of nasally peents. Suddenly he stops peenting and flies skyward in steep spirals twittering as he goes. Then quickly he tumbles back to the ground, chirping along the way. This is repeated many times for an hour or so at dawn and again at dusk.

This evening I set out for a walk around the block around 7:00 pm when the sky was beginning to darken. My foot falls were noisy on the road pavement so I paused. And then, I heard the twitters, then in the distance a peent. The Sky Dance was underway. I listened to 4 or 5 woodcock in our neighborhood competing and practicing their peents and twitters.

We live in an area that I describe as somewhere between suburbia and rural residential. Enough patches of habitat between houses to attract interesting wildlife and the neighborhood is quiet after dark in the early evening. Quiet enough for me to listen for and hear the woodcock. The waxing gibbous moon -- high in the southern sky -- offered sufficient natural light for me to walk quietly down our road. Orion was visible near the moon as other stars emerged with the darkening sky.

As I walked back to the house by 7:30 pm the woodcock dances had slowed. Just then a coyote howled from the Mitchell field, not far away. Perhaps in response, a Canada goose called briefly from the wetland. Then all was quiet. The woodcock will start up again well before sunrise, before most of us are stirring.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mt. Hight

The weather forecast for yesterday called for fog, temperatures in the twenties dropping to the teens, and winds 25-35 mph with gusts up to 45 mph in the high Presidentials. Our group of five plus Kodi had planned to hike the 5,366' Mount Madison. Given the likelihood of fog and near-zero visibility we chose a lower peak - the 4,675' Mt. Hight in the Carter-Moriah Range just east of the Presidentials.

A compounding factor for this hike was the time change. We all moved our clocks forward an hour Saturday night to ensure we awoke at the correct hour of 4:30 am. Although we all moved time forward and arrived at the trailhead by 8:00 am, our bodies did not spring forward. We were all a little sluggish on the hike; all but Kodi, who was in top hiking form. Still, we all were happy to be on the trail as light snow fell, the air temperature was comfortably in the high twenties with little wind.

We set out on Nineteen Mile Brook Trail, a scenic trail that parallels the brook for 1.9 miles. The trail lies on a narrow terrace on the slope just above the brook. We passed cascading waterfalls and deep pools.

The trail was well-packed -- perfect for snowshoes, which we wore all the way up and down. We frowned at several other hiking parties who were in bare boots and leaving deep "post holes," when their boot sank up to three feet or more in places where the snow was a little soft. This ruins the trail. Inexplicably many of these folks had snowshoes strapped on their packs.

The steady climb and our relaxed pace allowed us to take in the beauty of the brook and surrounding forest. I saw fresh marten tracks, but no sightings this time. From 19 Mile Brook Trail we turned east and began a steeper climb up the Carter Dome Trail to Zeta Pass and the Carter-Moriah Trail, part of the Appalachian Trail. This leg of our hike passed through a beautiful stand of paper birch and then into more spruce and fir. We crossed a tributary to 19 mile brook, still rimmed with four feet of snow.

After a rest and snack at Zeta Pass -- a small opening in the forest -- we continued on and up. The 0.4 mile hike up to the summit of Mt. Hight from the Carter-Moriah Trail is deceptively steep. Our pace was slow and steady, while Kodi scrambled easily up the slope. Once we emerged above treeline, the wind blew hard and the visibility was low. Still, it was beautiful and the cold wind cooled our over-heated bodies from the climb.

We laughed at Kodi's antics on the summit. He loves to hike and seems exhilarated in the cold and wind of these summits in winter. He scampered, and rolled, and chased his tail.

We both enjoyed the wind on our face.

Then we descended back down the steep pitch to Zeta Pass for lunch of hot soup and sandwiches and dried fruit. And started planning our next hike.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Patterns in Sand

We spent some time at the Rye beach this morning, as the tide was receding. A few hardy souls were surfing; their black neoprene-clad bodies bobbed in the waves, while they waited for a big one. Kodi met every dog on the beach with a big grin; chasing and being chased across the sandy beach is his favorite sport.

Low tide is the best time to visit the beach. It offers a great expanse of beach for dogs to run, for beach-combers to find newly exposed shells, and for gazing at intricate patterns in the sand left by the receding tide.

Today, as we walked down the beach, we stepped over small rivulets of saltwater still making their way toward the tide line. The water flowed in dendritic patterns -- like the branches of a tree. Every step revealed a different, beautiful pattern. All these tiny drainages will be erased when the high tide rushes in within just a few hours. Then, new patterns will form as the tide recedes again, twice daily.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Coopers Takes Chipmunk

While sitting at my laptop just now (at 6:30 am), reading about the earthquake and tsunami, I watched a large hawk fly into my viewshed and land just beyond the feeders. My binoculars are close at hand so I managed a quick look before the bird lifted off with a chipmunk in its talons.

This was a female Cooper's hawk - large head, gray back, orange streaking on breast, long, rounded tail when spread. I even saw streaks of white feathers on the back of her head, which I've not noticed before in this species. She grabbed the chipmunk off the lower trunk of a large white pine. Oh my. I think this was the chipmunk that I wrote about on Monday -- chipmunks emerge from winter slumber. I've been watching this chipmunk all week as it fattened up on sunflower seeds cast off from the feeders by the finches. The plump chipmunk made a nice meal for the Cooper's hawk.

The view from my window offers some spectacular sights. I get to see a predator catch its prey. There are many fewer Cooper's hawks (predator) than chipmunks (prey), which is the nature of food webs. As I write this post, two more chipmunks emerge from underground burrows near the feeders. All seems normal.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Slow Spring

Signs of spring are painfully slow this year. Yesterday was cold and gray. Without sunglasses I squint my eyes against the snow's glare, even on gray days. I tried to look at a shrub in our front yard and was turned back by two feet of soft snow that stubbornly remains.

The bright spot yesterday were the 7 male and 5 female purple finches at the feeders. The males -- the color of red raspberry juice -- sit at the black oil sunflower seed feeder methodically extracting the seeds. The less colorful brown and white females have distinct brown streaks below and broad white streaks on their face.

We've never had so many purple finches. Breeding bird surveys in New Hampshire show a steady population decline from 1966 to the present. Various theories for this decline include competition from the non-native house finch, loss of some of their breeding habitat (specifically spruce-fir forests and associated insect populations), and climate change. None of these reasons are for certain.

Purple finches tend to return to the same breeding areas year after year. In winter, however, they range widely in response to fluctuations in their food supplies -- seeds, buds, fruits. Given the "irruptions" of redpolls this year - we had 4 dozen a few weeks ago and my friend Scott reported more than 500 in his yard on Saturday -- perhaps the purple finches are responding to the same winter conditions that cause redpolls to be on the move. Interestingly, I have not seen a house finch in several years. A few pairs used to nest in our neighborhood, but not for some time. Perhaps house finches are in decline and purple finches are rebounding. Only more data will tell.

The purple finches at the feeder is a winter flock, adding to the feeling that it is still winter. I saw one yellow crocus yesterday, at New Roots Farm. Spring is taking its own sweet time.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Chipmunks Emerge from Winter Slumber

More signs of spring here in southeastern New Hampshire. Nearly two inches of rain in the last 24 hours has uncovered more bare ground. A healthy-looking chipmunk with full cheek pouches was busy beneath the bird feeders this morning -- the first chipmunk I've seen emerge from winter slumber. Yesterday afternoon as I stood in our backyard I heard at least two male red-winged blackbirds singing from the edge of the wetland in our back woods. I don't hear them today. I assume they went in search of some open water, as the wetland is still snow and ice-covered.

Northern New England is experiencing something completely different. My sister and family near Burlington, Vermont are getting the biggest snowstorm since Valentine's Day 2007 and maybe the biggest recorded snowfall ever for March. Thirty inches of snow are predicted for some parts of the state. My sister mentioned snow drifts of six feet in her yard this morning, because of high winds. I hope they get to see chipmunks soon, as they are  getting tired of winter up that way.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Pussy Willows

The shrub looked to be decorated in small, white Christmas lights, offering a patch of brightness on this gray day with rain to come later. I cheered on this first sign of spring: the buds of the pussy willow bursting open.

The days are warmer and the snow is melting away. A predicted heavy rain tonight will take away more snow. I can see bare ground at the base of the big white pine outside my home office window. The transition to spring has finally begun. I can see the change; the pace is quickening.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Shrub Buds

On Thursday I attended a winter shrub workshop; specifically, how to identify shrubs and their benefits to wildlife. Okay, maybe that sounds totally boring, but it's not.

My ability to identify shrubs in winter is always in need of a refresher. For proper i.d. one needs to learn the buds -- whether opposite or alternate, naked or with scales, their color, size and shape. You might even find a clue in the taste or sniff of a broken shrub twig. Now, how fun is that!

This is much like re-learning the songs of returning songbirds each spring. I am an experiential learner. I need to see (or hear) things for myself and see them again and then again. Writing a blog the past two years has enabled me to spend a lot of time outdoors. Or perhaps it is the reverse. Spending lots of time outdoors for work and pleasure spawned my interest in writing a blog, and provided fodder for the regular posts. As this winter has dragged on, I've turned to studying winter buds. Give it a try. You will be surprised at the diversity and beauty found in small packages just outside your door. It makes a cold winter's day much more tolerable. As my young niece would say, "Who knows what treasures you might find."

Here is a sample of native (except the lilac) shrub buds and a few tips on their i.d. See if you can find some of these or other winter buds near you.

Beautiful cinnamon-colored, naked (no scales) buds of hobblebush 

Reddish-brown football-shaped stalked buds of speckled alder

Blueberry bud scales with long tapered tips;
twigs covered with raised speckles or warts

Bright red, pointed buds of maleberry

The 5-parted brown "nutlets" of maleberry persist through winter

Reddish twigs with silky hairs and opposite buds of silky dogwood

I also checked these lilac buds in our yard;
getting a bit antsy for spring blossoms

And the last one for this post, but of course not the least as it is my favorite:
the round golden buds of spicebush; break a twig and smell the spice

Friday, March 4, 2011

Kodi Zigzags

Kodi and I started running together occasionally this winter. We make a decent running team, tackling about 3 miles a few times a week. He is on a leash and I jog alongside. We both appreciate each others willingness to go at varying speeds. Kodi likes to stop and sniff and mark or wander onto a snowbank to check out an animal track or another dog's mark. I don't mind the pause, giving my knees and lungs a rest.

There is no doubt though that Kodi is a domestic dog and not a wild canid. He wanders and he zigzags. His wild brethren -- foxes and coyotes -- do not. Kodi can afford to be sloppy in his wanderings. He gets to come home to a nice meal, a warm house, and a comfortable sofa. By contrast, wild canids are efficient in their stride and tend to go in straight lines. They need to conserve energy.

When visiting my parents last week at their Winterberry Farm, I watched a coyote make a bee-line across a lower hayfield. Kodi was near me. He did not see the coyote but smelled or sensed its presence. He then made his own bee-line run back to the house. It is one of the few situations where I see Kodi run straight -- when he senses a coyote. He fears them for some reason. I think it is irrational, but perhaps something happened in his first year of life to elicit such jitters.

Kodi and I made it through basic training last spring, when Kodi was just over a year old and not long after we adopted him from the SPCA. He was a little restless in class. Sitting for long periods and heeling were not his strong suits. These days, as we run or trot down Bald Hill Road, Kodi zigs and zags from one side of the road to the other. He is on the lookout for important smells or signs along the way, especially those of other dogs. He likes to mark and is still indifferent to heeling.

I indulge Kodi when we run. Our route is along a fairly quiet and very scenic road. When a car does approach I bring Kodi alongside and we face toward the oncoming traffic. He doesn't quite get this road protocol, but at least it keeps us both safe. After the car passes we resume our wanderings. After the 30 minute run/trot/walk we both feel good and are ready for a snack.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


The temperature on the outdoor thermometer crawled toward 40 degrees, but never quite made it that high today. A strong west wind made it feel much colder. The snow pack in our backyard is still more than two feet deep. Is this March or February? -- hard to tell, except by noting the sun's path. The sun is rising earlier and setting later and today the sky was clear and blue. Still, it wouldn't hurt to show a little green grass to prove it is really March. That, I think, is still many weeks away, much to the delight of Kodi.

A view on our morning walk on Bald Hill Road;
still lots of snow in fields and forests

Kodi checks the snow depth in our yard, burying a tennis ball as deep as he can

According to Kodi there is still plenty of snow and to him that is most excellent

I just checked my blog posts for March 1st (or thereabouts) from the past two years. On March 4th in 2009 we received one foot of fresh snow. On March 1st in 2010 we were on day four of a power outage, the result of a late February Nor'easter. How soon one forgets. Now I'm feeling better about March 1, 2011. Blue skies and not a Nor'easter in sight.

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